A Visit to Japan’s Snow Monkey Park – A Look in the Mirror

Japan's snow monkey park

Ever since I watched the PBS Nature episode about Japanese snow monkeys, I hoped that one day I might be able to see them in person. In the winter of 2016 when my husband and I visited japan, we took the opportunity for a visit to Japan’s Snow Monkey Park. The experience with the snow monkeys was as engaging and entertaining as anything I could have wished for. In many ways, it was like looking in a mirror.

Japanese snow monkeys, or rather Japanese macaques, are native to Japan and are the most northern living nonhuman primates. They are found throughout most of Japan, except on the northernmost island of Hokkaido. But it is the monkeys that live in the Snow Monkey Park in Jigokudani or Hell’s Valley, that have become the focus of the tourist imagination. In winter, the monkeys travel down the mountain to bathe in the hot spring onsen in the park to warm up from the snowy cold. The park rangers also provide the monkeys with food during the winter months when there isn’t much natural food for them to forage.

To get to Jigokudani from Tokyo you can take a tour during the winter months, or you can get there on your own like we did, via a bullet train to Nagano (see the link for access to the park below). When we visited in January 2016, it was a very unusually warm winter, so there was actually very little snow in the Snow Monkey Park. While this made the visit less photogenic, it made it much easier to hike the one mile path to their hot spring without having to deal with a slippery or muddy trail.

Jigokudani area map

We caught our first glimpse of the monkeys in the trees as we approached their hot spring. They were amazingly tame and unperturbed by the presence of humans in their environment. They continued about their business of grooming, foraging and playing, and seemed only mildly interested in the big, two legged creatures invading their space. The hot spring bath was surrounded by visitors, but that did not bother them in the least either. The monkeys were clearly used to humans in their environment.

Since it wasn’t too cold, we stood there and watched them for a few hours. They exhibited extremely human behaviors with the various monkeys showing obvious personalities. They played. They groomed. They got in and out and then back into the hot water. Some fought over what appeared to be prime real estate in the bath. Others just hung out and chilled and stared back at us. The young ones clung to their mothers. Then they got off and ran around chasing each other. Then they climbed back on their mothers. Babies nursed as their mothers held them close. There were clear hierarchies, with one or two of the males exhibiting dominant behavior, but overall, the troop seemed to get along, with its members understanding their role in the pecking order.

This one was clearly not bothered by an audience.

Just chilling out.

This guy or gal just hung out in this position for a long time, just relaxing, looking out at us the whole time and not bothered by much of anything.

There was time for some self grooming and a snack all in one.

Grooming is also a social activity.

Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil and See No Evil grooming each other?

Why walk when your mom will give you a ride.

A mother’s love is the same with all primates.

But what really struck me was the soulful eyes – their “humanity” as  they looked back into our eyes.

After our visit, my husband mentioned to his Japanese business associates that we had been to the Snow Monkey Park and he was teased for doing such a “touristy” activity. There are other monkey parks in Japan (such as the one in Arashiyama outside Kyoto), but this is the only spot in the world where you can see primates other than ourselves indulging in a “spa-like” experience, purely for the benefit of enjoying a hot bath. Genetically they may be distant cousins, but watching them play and interact was similar to watching a group of kindergarteners at recess. Have we really evolved that much more?

And I can’t help wondering what they think of us?


For up to date information on visiting the Snow Monkey Park please visit http://www.snowmonkeyresorts.com/smr/snowmonkeypark/

For information on how to get to the Snow Monkey park, please visit http://www.snowmonkeyresorts.com/2016/12/bus-or-train/


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